Idea Man

Ted Chiang
Ted Chiang; illustration by Joanna Neborsky

What fiction is made out of is a bit of a mystery, but an old bromide has it that ideas should not be a major component. T.S. Eliot praised Henry James for not having any in his fiction, which seems to accord with James’s own understanding of his work. “Nothing is my last word about anything,” he once wrote to a critic who had upset him by construing a particular portrait in one of his tales as a general statement. Along similar lines, George Orwell praised Charles Dickens for being “a free intelligence” who, in Orwell’s estimation, “has no constructive suggestions, not even a clear grasp of the nature of the society he is attacking, only an emotional perception that something is wrong.” Ideas, by virtue of their abstractness, are deprecated as too smooth and clean, deficient in the loam of contradictory specifics from which rich fiction grows, and the wish to demonstrate an idea is seen as dangerous because it might lead a writer to neaten her picture of the world, and thereby falsify it.

Some kinds of ideas probably should be kept out of literature. It’s understandable, for example, that Orwell dismissed political dogmas as “smelly little orthodoxies,” and that he celebrated Dickens for writing novels that were innocent of them. But does it make sense to exclude ideas drawn from science or math?

The challenge of science fiction is in its embrace of them. Stanisław Lem couldn’t have imagined the strangeness of an encounter with a nonhuman intelligence, in his novel Solaris, without recourse to ideas. He deployed so many, in fact, that the novel features a made-up intellectual history of human scholarship of alien intelligence, complete with controversies and paradigm shifts. Nor could Philip K. Dick have dispensed with them when he explored, in his novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, what humanity might feel like if it someday becomes almost indistinguishable from a simulation of itself. In the right hands, ideas expand the possibilities of fiction. Unfortunately, it’s rare to find a writer capable of assimilating them into the flesh and bone of story. Often one element is noticeably compromised: the ideas are watered down, or the story is sensational rather than deeply felt, no more than a soap opera or a boy’s adventure.

Ted Chiang has the powers of analysis and invention necessary for the alchemy. Chiang has been publishing ingenious tales of science fiction since 1990. His new collection, Exhalation, is only his second, arriving seventeen years after his first, Stories of Your Life and Others. He may have been slowed down by the daunting amount of intellectual labor that he puts into each story.

Consider the cunning structure of his 1991 tale “Division by Zero,” which appeared in his first collection. Renee, a mathematician, has been thrown into a suicidal depression,…

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